When the unthinkable happened to Erhard Bauer in 2009, he found he was surprisingly prepared. Having spent the preceding two decades living and working in remote and often turbulent regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bauer had been in Indonesia less than three months when he was shot three times by two men on a motorcycle in Banda Aceh.
“The moment you realise you’ve been hit,” he says, “it means you’re still alive and can do something about it.” Three years on, Bauer, head of the German Red Cross in Indonesia, recounts the experience warily, determined not to be known as “the guy who got hit”. He also continues to be struck by the irony of being attacked in a country deemed far safer than anywhere he’d lived in recent memory.
Aside from being immediately flown to Singapore for treatment, which he reckons saved his life, Bauer, 54, says what helped him recover was finding out that he was just unlucky. “I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. That made it easier to handle [after the fact]. It was an ad hoc attempt and I’d been chosen just hours before as the target, so there wasn’t anything we could have done differently. It wasn’t part of some sinister design. That’s why I think that, as bad as it was, I’m sitting here now and it doesn’t give me a shiver. I’m done with it.” He was back to work within two months.
Adjusting to Jakarta’s idiosyncrasies, however, has proved difficult. Bauer, his wife Heike, and their two daughters were reluctant to leave Pakistan, their previous posting, where their own lives had become entwined with the dramatic – and occasionally traumatic – political and social changes taking place. “Your private life is connected to the history of a place,” he says, recalling such events as the Taliban’s rise to prominence in Afghanistan and the ongoing effects of the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. “Our family folklore now includes things like when the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad was bombed. Like Afghans and Pakistanis, we grew accustomed to things that are rather extraordinary.”
Their time in Jakarta, on the other hand, has been overwhelmed by the logistics of daily life. Bauer sees Indonesia, despite being a relatively functional democracy, as facing many of the same political challenges as the countries he used to work in. But the biggest impediment to his feeling at home is the city’s formidable traffic problems. “It affects everything,” he says, “your work, the way you meet people, the way you socialise.”
In fact, the volume of traffic, which Bauer says is at “a constant peak from six in the morning until eight at night”, requires a sizeable investment of money as well as time. “For many families, this means two cars, plus a driver for each, to service the family’s needs. It’s horrible because it contributes to the overall chaos.” Committed to opting out of this cycle, the family pay a large sum annually for the girls to use the school bus system, while Bauer avails himself of an office car and Heike gets around in taxis.
Born and raised in the mountainous region of Thuringia in Germany, with its collection of medieval castles and hundreds of kilometres of pristine old growth trails, Bauer often feels suffocated in the Indonesian capital, where peace and quiet can be hard to come by. The family’s home was a fortuitous find. A relatively spacious house with “decaying charm” in Kemang, in the southern part of the city, their home’s greatest virtue is the enormous tree that grows in the midst of a large grove of flowering Heliconias, papaya trees, and banana palms. “We live with our windows open onto this tree,” he says. “It’s a biotope where birds and squirrels live. We have snakes and bats of all sizes. Best of all, it acts like a big filter and gives us breathable air. It’s the only place I can relax. It’s a refuge in an environment that sometimes feels a bit harmful.”
Efforts to bypass places where there is a high density of tourists has meant holidaying in spots like the north of Bali rather than the south, where the majority of resorts are found. But if you’re willing to travel among throngs of fellow visitors, says Bauer, Indonesia has no shortage of destinations. On the coast of Java, Heike and the girls have seen turtles hatching, while short trips to Bandung, a two-hour drive from Jakarta, afford them opportunities to commune with active volcanoes, including the dramatic and mercurial Mount Bromo. “Bandung is good because it’s not too far from Jakarta,” Bauer says, “but far enough.”
As the family prepares to move again in a few months’ time, Bauer reflects on the unusual condition that is the serial expatriate’s life, at once an opportunity to experience the thrill of the new, and a stark reminder that he will always be an outsider everywhere except Germany. “I could never completely assimilate somewhere else,” Bauer says, despite having mastered multiple languages and devoting nearly half his life to the cultural expectations of societies dramatically different from his own.
But returning to his native country isn’t always the homecoming he imagines it will be. “Germany has changed a lot in the last 20 years,” Bauer says. “Sometimes I have difficulty recognising places. Things are new to me the same way they’re new to a tourist. I no longer know the prices of things. After you’ve been away for a while, you begin to recognise that, for now, you belong to the country you’re living in.”
Still, Bauer knows for certain how he wants to spend his retirement years. “I miss my friends and being able to contact them easily,” he says. “I miss going to the opera and the theatre. Reading the newspaper in my mother tongue. Having access to the culture I was connected to as a child. When Heike and I think of where to live when we are old, these will be our criteria: a place where we can be together with people who share the same values and a common language.”
“Not the tropics,” he hastens to add.
● Proximity to places like Borneo and Bali, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
● The variety of food available, both in shops and in restaurants
● Excellent opportunities for children’s education
● The air pollution and constant noise in a city of 12m
● The difficulty getting out of the city on weekends, since everyone is trying to do the same thing
What you can buy for …
$100,000: A fully furnished, two-bedroom flat in a high-rise featuring a swimming pool and fitness centre
$1m: A four-bedroom, 450 sq m house with a two-car garage